A social media user known by the name Seanathan Bates was walking on Barnes Road near Highway 217 in Portland, Oregon when he spotted an iPhone near the sidewalk. “Survived a 16,000 foot [4,877 metres] drop”, he tweeted, before calling the National Transportation Safety Board which is investigating the incident with Alaska Airlines. When talking to the organisation, he found out the iPhone was the second smartphone to have been found intact after falling from the aircraft.
When Bates found the iPhone, the device was set on airplane mode with the battery still halfway charged. It appear as if the phone was being charged at the moment of the dropout as a broken-off cable was still inside the charging port. The screen was still intact and showed an interesting piece of information: a 70 dollar receipt for two checked bags on Alaska Airlines flight 1282.
But how did an iPhone (or a smartphone in general) survive such a drop without as much as a scratch? “The basic answer is air resistance. I think the counterintuitive thing here is that an iPhone falling from the sky doesn’t end up moving that quickly because of air resistance”, Duncan Watts, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo, explained for the Washington Post. “If the phone is falling with its screen facing the ground, there’s quite a lot of drag, but if the phone is falling straight up and down, there’s quite a bit less. In reality, the phone would be tumbling quite a bit, and get quite a lot of wind essentially giving an upward force.”
According to Watts, the larger the phone, the lower its terminal velocity would be. Terminal velocity is achieved when the speed of a moving object is no longer increasing or decreasing, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. The force of air resistance is approximately proportional to the speed of the falling object, so air resistance increases for an object that is accelerating. Knowing this, according to Watts, the speed at which the iPhone fell from the plane was only be about five times faster than if it had fallen from a pocket. In addition, a potential soft landing in the grass or foliage, explains the good state of the phone.